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Buffalo Unbound: A Celebration

Buffalo Unbound: A Celebration

4.4 9
by Laura Pedersen

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Writing about the economic collapse and social unrest of her 1970s childhood in Buffalo, New York, Laura Pedersen was struck by how things were finally improving in her beloved hometown. As 2008 began, Buffalo was poised to become the thriving metropolis it had been a hundred years earlier—only instead of grain and steel, the booming industries now included


Writing about the economic collapse and social unrest of her 1970s childhood in Buffalo, New York, Laura Pedersen was struck by how things were finally improving in her beloved hometown. As 2008 began, Buffalo was poised to become the thriving metropolis it had been a hundred years earlier—only instead of grain and steel, the booming industries now included healthcare and banking, education and technology. Folks who'd moved away due to lack of opportunity in the 1980s talked excitedly about returning home. They mised the small-town friendliness and it wasn't nostalgia for a past that no longer existed—Buffalo has long held the well-deserved nickname the City of Good Neighbors.

The diaspora has ended. Preservationists are winning out over demolition crews. The lights are back on in a city that's usually associated with blizzards and blight rather than its treasure trove of art, architecture, and culture.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Although rife with in–jokes for Buffalo locals, making it a must–read for East Coasters, Buffalo Unbound abounds with entertainment, along with many riveting facts, for those who have never experienced the area firsthand. Pedersen's essays are love letters to her favorite city—seemingly penned by a cross between anthropologist Margaret Mead and the likes of Dave Barry. —Terry Shannon, Book Reporter.com

"Buffalo Unbound is a humorous and heartfelt look at the rise, fall, and rebirth of the great Rust Belt city." —USA Book News

Buffalo Unbound was a finalist for the International Book Awards in the Humor category.

Buffalo Unbound was a finalist for the 2011 International Book Awards in the Travel Essay category.

Product Details

Fulcrum Publishing
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5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Buffalo Unbound

A Celebration

By Laura Pedersen

Fulcrum Publishing

Copyright © 2010 Laura Pedersen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55591-787-6


Black Is the New Black

As a result of being born in 1965 in blue-collar Buffalo, New York, that polestar of the Rust Belt constellation, I seem to have missed the golden age of everything — ancient Greece, Pax Romana, Spanish sonnets, the Hollywood musical, air travel, and even the ozone layer. Instead, I've been part and parcel of the shock-and-outrage age of high gas prices, global warming, death by trans fat, and nationwide bankruptcy.

On September 29, 2008, the day that Buffalo Gal arrived in stores, the Dow Jones average dropped 778.68, the largest point drop in history, placing the country firmly in the grips of the Great Recession. We were also in the midst of another energy crisis, gas having recently hit an all-time peak of $4.11 a gallon, with prices at Western New York pumps the highest in the nation. Buffalo appeared in the top ten of the Forbes list of America's Fastest-Dying Cities. We were five years into an increasingly unpopular and unwinnable war in Iraq and seven years into what appeared to be a costly but futile hunt for terrorists in Afghanistan. Had I jinxed us? Were Afros, sideburns, bell-bottoms, disco, and Toni home perms lurking around the corner?

The Buffalo Bills, who'd made it clear early in the season that they wouldn't be fitted for Super Bowl rings, weren't exactly raising morale in the fall of 2008. As the team lost to the New York Jets, the game was interrupted by breaking news of then president George W. Bush ducking shoes lobbed at him during a press conference in Iraq, and compared to the Buffalo players on the field, Bush looked positively agile. In fact, putting on a Bills game had suddenly become a way to empty out a bar, much the same way my grandfather used to do by singing World War I songs (all verses) in Tommy Martin's speakeasy at 12 1/2 Seneca Street.

President George W. Bush went from lame duck to dead duck as Congress passed a $700 billion package to rescue the nation's banks from the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Or, as my seventy-seven-year-old father put it, "Mark Twain came in with Halley's Comet and went out with it, so I guess I came in with the Great Depression and will go out with that." The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, more commonly known as the Bailout, was unpopular with the public, who by and large felt they were being flimflammed once again by the same people who'd brought them the hypercapitalism of no-money-down mortgages with adjustable rates that had been adjusted upward, and credit cards that started with no or low interest rates and promptly skyrocketed until they reached debt collection agencies. The government that gave us Operation Enduring Freedom (which sounded more like a new type of birth control or maxi pad), Operation Spartan Scorpion, and Operation O.K. Corral might have considered tagging their "bailout" package with a catchier name, such as Operation Rip-Roaring Rescue and Reinvestment.

Our very first MBA president (Harvard, no less) oversaw a budget death spiral that went from a $236 billion surplus to a $500 billion deficit. Obviously the thinking here was, "This is money that we owe ourselves so let's just forget about it." Remember your parents constantly scolding, "Money doesn't grow on trees!" Actually, it turns out that it does. Money is a paper product, just like toilet tissue, and so long as there are forests, we can just print some more, regular or two-ply.

With the bailout in place, the Dow continued to plunge below 7,000, more than 50 percent below its high of over 14,000 just a year earlier. Several apocalyptic Ponzi schemes were uncovered, including those operated by Richard Piccoli in Buffalo and Bernie Madoff in Manhattan. Investors quickly turned from stocks, swaps, and bonds to gold, guns, and lifeboats. Easter 2009 brought a nationwide nest-egg hunt, with the Dow having just touched its lowest level in over a decade. Unemployment hit a twenty-five-year high of 8.5 percent and was on the way up. In the Buffalo area, the official rate was 9.6 percent (though considerably higher when calculated under broader definitions including those who have given up looking for work) and was much worse for minorities. Even with its first African American mayor, Byron Brown, on the job since 2006, Buffalo still had one of the highest black male jobless rates in the country. And nearly 30 percent of the city's population was officially classified as poor, making Buffalo the nation's third poorest city, behind Detroit and then Cleveland (whose sassy boosters proudly claim, "We're not Detroit!").

On November 4, 2008, the American people elected Barack Hussein Obama as their new president and in the process left many encouraged, believing the country had finally overcome a sad and sordid past of slavery and segregation. The most common sentiment I heard in downtown Buffalo on election night was, "I wish my [mother, father, brother, grandmother, fill in the blank] had lived to see this!"

In January of 2009 the first black family moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a house built partly by slaves, 148 years after the Civil War began. Countless African Americans hadn't even been able to cast their ballot until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, just a few months after civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was murdered in cold blood by the Ku Klux Klan for giving blacks a ride home in her station wagon after a march in Selma, Alabama. I don't remember that since it was the year I was born, but I clearly recall attending elementary school in the early seventies and having a crayon in my box called "flesh" that was pale peach.

The nationwide financial downturn, compounded by the ongoing machinations of a corrupt and dysfunctional New York State legislature, had taken the high hopes for a Western New York renaissance down along with it. As many of us vividly recalled from the Long-suffering Seventies, Buffalonians continued to experience the aftershocks of that recession for years, while most of the country was well on the road to recovery. But this time there were a few signs that things might turn out differently. And I don't mean the big green signs that say Peace Bridge to Canada Next Right.


I've Got the World on a String Theory

In February of 2009, I was forced to cancel my long-standing subscription to Forbes magazine when it ranked Buffalo eighth on a list of America's Ten Most Miserable Cities (and then repeated the insult in 2010). This was not an action I took lightly, since a family friend's cast-off copies of Forbes had taught me everything I knew about business. At age eighteen I even wrote to publisher Malcolm Forbes and told him that, unable to find opportunity in my hometown in 1983, I was off to seek my fortune on Wall Street based on all that I'd gleaned from the glossy pages of his magazine. The Manhattan-wise brokers and clerks on the dog-eat-dog trading floor ate naive girls like me for breakfast, and I fell for their practical jokes — frantically running from post to post and finally to the chairman's office in search of a bag of upticks, their version of the left-handed monkey wrench. But all that changed the day Malcolm Forbes's reply came addressed to me at the stock exchange. The guys were stunned to see an embossed envelope from the publisher of Forbes and immediately wanted to know how I might be related to or acquainted with the legendary mogul. I tucked the envelope into my pocket as if Malc and I had been best friends forever. Later I discovered it contained only a pleasant form letter, but I was never again sent for the odd-lot stretcher or the keys to the clearinghouse or a bacon double cheeseburger at the kosher deli (which I didn't fall for, since my godparents were Jewish).

Still, after three decades of periodical bliss and mutual respect, it was the end of a beautiful capitalist friendship with Forbes, and I hope the new publisher understands why. Their Misery Measure took into account commute times, corruption, pro sports teams, Superfund sites, income tax, sales tax, unemployment, violent crime, and weather. Why didn't it include art, architecture, and culture, areas in which Buffalo shines, from highbrow to pierced brow, with its many galleries, theaters, architectural treasures, museums, and restaurants? Superstar chef Anthony Bourdain stopped to sample the fare and declared the city not only "beautiful, especially in winter," but "a sentimental favorite," and in 2009 Esquire magazine rated homegrown Ted's Hot Dogs and Mighty Taco two of the best fast-food chains in America. And I'll take the liberty of adding stand-alone Saigon Bangkok, Risa's, Le Metro, Brodo, and Papaya.

Buffalo, which ranked between Detroit and Miami among Forbes's Les Misérables, was taken to task for its surplus snowfall and incredible shrinking population (which peaked at 618,000 in 1960 and is now about 270,000). And why is Buffalo snow a problem? Many cities ranked as the best places to live have plenty of snow. The white stuff seems to be fine in Fargo, no problem in Nashua, boffo in Boise, and perfect in Provo. Paintings by Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses feature snow. I wasn't aware there was good snow and bad snow, aside from newly fallen snow and yellow snow. Why didn't they take into account that the National Weather Service has never recorded the mercury as being over 100 degrees in this city with such perfect summers? Frostbite, maybe a little. Heatstroke, not a chance.

We're talking about a city with an infrastructure designed to support many more people than its current population, and as a result there are few lines and even fewer traffic jams. You needn't arrive at beaches at the butt crack of dawn to get a good spot, and you don't see smackdowns over picnic tables in the parks. Citizens rest easy knowing there won't be any shortage of hospital beds if the Chicken Wing Flu strikes.

Still, no one I knew felt miserable when Forbes so unexpectedly lashed out at us. However, the following week a local Muslim man decapitated his wife because she was divorcing him (he'd already been divorced twice) — a so-called honor killing by a man who, with his wife, was running a TV station aimed at counteracting negative stereotypes about Muslims. The Unitarian Women's Group (less a sewing circle and more a tactical team against injustice) hadn't been so berserk since 2002, when a Nigerian woman was sentenced to be stoned to death for bearing a child out of wedlock. And before that, when Little Women author Louisa May Alcott was told by a well-known Boston publisher, "Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can't write."

That same night, a plane crashed in the town of Clarence, fourteen miles northeast of Buffalo, killing fifty people. It was a preventable tragedy, the result of a poorly skilled and inadequately trained pilot. Suddenly everyone felt miserable. In an area with over a million people, it's hard to imagine all the threads connecting our lives into one big tapestry, but they're there. Most people had some link to the crash that suddenly made daily existence more tenuous. Mine was that I'd gone to church with the couple to whose home a woman and her daughter fled after their house had been hit by the falling plane, which killed the husband.

Thus, the narrative of my book shifted slightly. It was not a time for new beginnings so much as for belt-tightening and recuperation, and who better at budgeting and refurbishing a torn psyche than Buffalonians? In the classic economic model of scarcity and abundance, Buffalonians have excelled at coupon clipping and dollar stretching over the past half century. Or, as the burglars like to say, we take things as we find them, even Canadian castoffs in mall parking lots, thereby adding a whole new dimension to the phrase duty-free shopping. With a history of economic adversity and our legacy as one of the country's most blizzard-beaten areas, when it comes time to hunker down and pray for daylight while remaining cheerful and practical, the nation turns its desperate gaze to us. We've internalized the lines from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot: "We wait till we can get up. Then we go on. On!" Or possibly the words of my favorite camp counselor: "Cry all you want. You'll have to pee less."

Western New Yorkers can find the upside to a downward spiral. Surely it's no accident that composer Harold Arlen (1905–1986) was born and raised in Buffalo. In 1929, the year of the stock market crash, he wrote the music for his first best-selling song, "Get Happy." During the depths of the Great Depression, he composed "I've Got the World on a String" (Life's a wonderful thing!) and the classic ballad "Over the Rainbow," and following World War II, "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" and "Come Rain or Come Shine" (Days may be cloudy or sunny, we're in or we're out of the money, but I'll love you always, I'm with you rain or shine).

We're a stoic people and the champions of waiting it out, whether it's for the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, or spring. Pray for sun, prepare for rain. If Buffalo had been around in biblical times, we'd have continued about our business through plague and pestilence. Frogs — wear boots. Hail — how about ice cream? Grasshoppers — perfect for a frozen blended afternoon cocktail. Indeed, Hang in There cat posters and Keep on Truckin' mud flaps were made for us.

Just between you and me, archaeologists and bisonologists are quite certain that no buffalo ever roamed Western New York. But there were and still are thousands of industrious beavers building homes and having families. Indeed, the winged beaver might make a better mascot for the area since Buffalonians just keep toiling away until they eventually rise up.

Buffalo is nicknamed the Queen City because it's the second largest city in the state, after New York, or else because at one time it was the second largest city on the Great Lakes, after Chicago. However, any chess player will tell you that it's better to be the queen. The king just stands there while the queen gets all the good moves.


The United States of Iroquois

Prior to middle school, when most major life decisions were made by employing the Magic 8 Ball, the similarly exacting eeny, meenie, miny, mo was used to determine who would go first on a double-dog dare and that sort of thing. However, it was absolutely necessary when dividing up for a game of cowboys and Indians since it was much cooler to be an Indian — not just because of the face paint and war whoops, but because it was only a game, and therefore you could fight hard without ending up conquered when dinner was ready and playtime was over. I guess nowadays kids play cowpersons and indigenous Americans. Or, more likely, computer war games.

In elementary school, we had to write an illustrated report on the Seneca Indian longhouse. The Seneca preferred this big house over groupings of smaller tepees, a wise choice in a Western New York winter and one that has withstood the test of time, as I do not recall ever going to anyone's tepee to play after school. A dozen or so people residing in one dwelling would probably appear crowded to schoolchildren in other parts of the country, but in heavily Catholic Buffalo this was a very common arrangement.

My hometown of Amherst, New York, a few miles northeast of Buffalo, is unusual in that it's named after British Army officer Jeffery Amherst. Many of the surrounding towns have Indian words for names — Cheektowaga, Lackawanna, Tonawanda, West Seneca, Gowanda, and Chautauqua. We also have Scajaquada Creek and the Scajaquada Expressway, which are not impossible to pronounce so long as you don't live near the Sagtikos State Parkway on Long Island, as my grandfather did. If you add in the name of Native American guide and interpreter Sacajawea, then you must pick two to say, since no person can pronounce Scajaquada, Sagtikos, and Sacajawea.

In addition to tax-free gas and cigarettes, we have the Indians to thank for squash, peanuts, maple sugar, syrup, Thanksgiving, the toboggan, lacrosse, the expression to bury the hatchet, and succotash — a stew made of corn, lima beans, and tomatoes. An Indian named Straight Back was invited to dinner by a white pioneer and the meal was served in courses. So when Straight Back invited the pioneer to his place, he also served dinner in courses — succotash, succotash, and then succotash. Perhaps that's why the cartoon character Sylvester the Cat used to say, "Suffering succotash."

As a matter of interest, the Iroquois did not own and operate the local Iroquois Brewery. Started as the Jacob Roos Brewery in 1830, Iroquois went on to become the largest brewery in Buffalo and collapsed under financial pressure in 1971. There was no bailout.

Four-fifths of New York State, from the Saint Lawrence River and Adirondack Mountains to Lake Erie and Ohio, had been settled by the original five nations of the Iroquois League (Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, and Onondaga) at least five hundred years before European settlers started arriving in the sixteenth century. The area around Lake Erie, which shares its latitude with Barcelona and Rome, was particularly popular because of the fertile farmland and good fishing.


Excerpted from Buffalo Unbound by Laura Pedersen. Copyright © 2010 Laura Pedersen. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Although rife with in–jokes for Buffalo locals, making it a must–read for East Coasters, Buffalo Unbound abounds with entertainment, along with many riveting facts, for those who have never experienced the area firsthand. Pedersen's essays are love letters to her favorite city—seemingly penned by a cross between anthropologist Margaret Mead and the likes of Dave Barry. —Terry Shannon, Book Reporter.com

"Buffalo Unbound is a humorous and heartfelt look at the rise, fall, and rebirth of the great Rust Belt city." —USA Book News

Buffalo Unbound was a finalist for the International Book Awards in the Humor category.

Buffalo Unbound was a finalist for the 2011 International Book Awards in the Travel Essay category.

Meet the Author

Laura Pedersen is the author of ten books, including Beginner’s Luck and Buffalo Gal. She was the youngest columnist for The New York Times and, prior to that, the youngest person to have a seat on the American Stock Exchange. Honored as one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans by President Clinton, Pedersen currently lives in New York City, but also maintains a place in Amherst.

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Buffalo Unbound: A Celebration 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
SammieWrites More than 1 year ago
Buffalo Unbound is a story about the past and present of Buffalo. Recently listed as one of the worst cities to live in, Laura Pedersen strives to rectify peoples perceptions and doesn't she ever!! Buffalo is now one of my top places to visit when I get to the United States. Her humorous tone and her account of the history throws us into the pages and instead of just reading what Buffalo has to offer we experience it right along with author who obviously has a profound love for the place she grew up in.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a fantastic tribute to a fantastic city. Laura Pedersen's book argues that there is no greater city than Buffalo, NY and does so in such a convincing manner that it made me want to find a way to move there. My roots are in Buffalo as my polish grandparents raised my mother there but she moved before I was born. What I knew of Buffalo was just from stories that my mother and Grandmother told me but alas they are not the story tellers that Ms. Pedersen is. She takes us along for a wonderful trip through the history, neighborhoods and myths of Buffalo and turns a city tribute into a page turner. Buffalo? Who would have thunk it!
sallypen More than 1 year ago
I purchase this book because I was being recruited for a position with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York and I knew very little about the city except that is was colder than a penguin's toe. In this book I found a Buffalo that I had never imagined. The author clearly loves her city and makes anyone who has made the decision to move to Buffalo feel as though they were making the best choice of their life. She presents Buffalo's treasures as the best kept secret around and this book reads like a love story to a beloved home town. Every city should have a devoted author such as Laura Pedersen to sing its glories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Laura Pedersen's latest book, shines a bright new light on events in Buffalo's past and present. Told in Laura's unique and personal way, this book is a great read and a terrific gift for those who love the Queen City as much as she does.
BettyKostovich More than 1 year ago
BUFFALO UNBOUND is a humorous retelling of Western New York history highlights that's like a combo of Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris. Pedersen talks about the city's peak around 1900, how things went into decline as auto and steel manufacturing moved overseas, and all the terrific things happening in the area today, including lots of medical, banking, and technology companies, along with a vibrant arts and culinary scene and a fantastic college town. Pedersen said she was prompted to write about all the positive aspects of living in and around Buffalo after Forbes Magazine recently ranked it as one of the most ten most miserable cities in which to live two years in a row. The last chapter of BUFFALO UNBOUND is absolutely terrific, where she explains why her hometown is called The City of Good Neighbors, and having lived in Buffalo for 20 years I can attest to the fact that the dry cleaner actually DOES return the money you left in your pocket and that Buffalonians are the friendliest and funniest and most spirited and most helpful people I've ever known. This is a great read whether you're from the area or not since Pedersen, a former New York Times columnist, has a wonderful sense of humor and does great riffs on how girls used to have to wear scratchy ill-fitting boys hand-me-down school soccer uniforms before Title IX and how a good storm gives you the best holiday memories and a hilarious recounting of the local Mafia that makes New Jersey's Sopranos look like beginners. After finishing BUFFALO UNBOUND I read BUFFALO GAL, her story of growing up in Western New York in the 1970s and the two are great bookends. The memoir won a couple of awards.
paulat35 More than 1 year ago
My maternal grandparents grew up in Buffalo. I didn’t have an opportunity to get to know them before they passed on but my mom told me stories that they had shared about their hometown. I would like to go visit Buffalo and a friend recommended this book. The author is so passionate about her hometown. She shares stories of many people from Buffalo and tells their stories in an entertaining way, while showing how proud the people are of their city. She does an excellent job of telling the story of the city and its citizens. From its industrial peak to the loss of a lot of that industry to overseas manufacturers, she tells the history of Buffalo with passion and love. Her sense of humor keeps the history lesson interesting and kept me engaged in her story. Her way of telling the story is engaging and personal, which really helped me get the feel of the city and its residents. The history of our ancestors can at times be difficult to learn about, but I think that this book will help me in my journey to discover the lives of my ancestors.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I should know. I live there.
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
Laura Pedersen wrote a hilarious book titled Buffalo Gal, about her life growing up in the snowy city of Buffalo, New York in the 1970s. As I grew up in Auburn, New York, two hours away but just as snowy, I totally related to her stories of making your way through feet of snow to get anywhere. I literally doubled over with laughter at Pedersen's skewered sense of humor about her family, friends and hometown. Now she has written a new book, Buffalo Unbound, telling why Buffalo is such a great city. Buffalo has taken it's share of knocks over the years, losing industry, jobs, and population. But a turn around occurred when The New York Times ran a story a few years ago about people who were moving from New York City to Buffalo to take advantage of the inexpensive, spacious housing and opportunity that a city trying to recover affords young families. Pedersen recounts canceling her subscription to Forbes magazine after it ranked Buffalo #8 on its list of Top Ten Most Miserable Cities. She decides to give the reasons why this is not true by writing this book. She starts with the fact that since so many people have left Buffalo, there is plenty of room, and you never have to wait in line for anything. No traffic jams, no getting to the beach at sunrise to get a good spot. Buffalonians have always been tough, and Pedersen illustrates this by telling of Margaret St. John, who refused to move her nine children during the war of 1812 when the British were on the way to burn the town. The British general was impressed by St. John, and left her family home alone. Pedersen explains that her own neighbors also had nine children and went on family vacation just once in 30 years, and so she understands St. John's position perfectly. She wasn't taking all those kids anywhere. Buffalo has always been very staunchly Catholic, and the story of Father Baker explains this. In the late 1880s, Buffalo was beginning to discover pockets of natural gas. Father Baker got $2000 from his bishop and invited drillers from a gas company to come drill on church property. They struck gas, and the money from the wells went to provide services such as the Infant Home, Working Boys Home, and as the Great Depression struck, Father Baker was able to provide food, medical care and clothing for hundreds of thousands of Buffalonians. Father Baker has been placed in nomination for sainthood in the Catholic Church, and his influence is felt to this day in Buffalo. Pedersen's chapter on the Blizzard of 1977 is interesting, and I like her suggestion for a "Western New York holiday gift list: generator, chain saw, wood chipper, carbon monoxide detector, Yaktrax (chains for your shoes), Buffalo Sabres Snuggie." If you know what she's talking about, you will appreciate this book. Ethnic festivals, chicken wings, the polka, the disappointing Buffalo Bills, Frank Lloyd Wright, and sponge candy- all of these get their due in this interesting book about the pride of being from Buffalo. Buffalo has many designations, the Good Neighbor City among them. Pedersen closes with "No, Buffalonians have it right. Join the club and pay your dues. Find others. Celebrate your joys and mourn your losses together. Stick with the herd. Swim with the school. Stay with the flock. And my mother says to wear a hat." Pedersen blends humor with history in this love letter to her hometown. In the days when we are all seemingly connected only by the in
Anonymous More than 1 year ago